Stefan van Biljon: Unearthing the urban unknown

This Cape Town and New York-trained architect talks about uncovering the invisible forces that influence our relationships with our cities.

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Stefan van Biljon is an architect and artist from Cape Town. He completed a Masters of Architecture at the University of Cape Town and a Masters of Architecture II at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, graduating in May 2014. Van Biljon is interested in dismantling our assumptions and discovering the hidden forces that shape our relationships with the cities we live in.

In this Design Indaba Conference 2014 talk, Van Biljon presents his thesis projects from both his masters courses, both looking at Cape Town.

The first of these projects is from Van Biljon’s 2010 thesis for the University of Cape, titled KL-Metamatic: Ghost Ship. 

“The project is located in a K/L berth,” says Van Biljon, “just a stone’s throw away from where we are sitting, in Cape Town’s harbour. The site used to be an anonymous point in open water. It was reclaimed in the 1930s and this idea of transformation from one state to the next, from water into land, became the guiding light of this project.”

He began by building models from pieces of old models and bits from scrap yards around Cape Town. Then he drew pictures of the models, “absorbing the shapes in the paper and transforming them into something new”.

Van Biljon then talks through images of his project from the first site model. He designed a machine that would slowly return K/L berth to the ocean over the course of 200 years. Van Biljon’s models also included a space where a single visitor could sit in the Ghost Ship and listen to the sound of the wind beating around the space. KL-Metamatic: Ghost Ship won van Biljon the 2010 South African Institute of Architects’ Best Student award.

The second project Van Biljon talks about is his thesis from the Cooper Union, Military Urbanism. Van Biljon uses drawings and maps to investigate the history of Cape Town’s segregated urban planning.

“This project really represents my attempt to try to unearth the unconscious of Cape Town’s urban divisions.”

The Group Areas Act, passed by the Apartheid government in the 1950s, saw the city carved into racially isolated areas. But the scars of that era are not the only ones that Cape Town bares. The lines that divide Capetonians date back long before the Apartheid bulldozers hit.

In a series of images, Van Biljon shows how “the city’s fractured character is rooted as much in the soil and landscape as it is in the social dynamics.”

Cape Town has a history of land appropriation and exclusion, with the Dutch and then the British displacing the Khoi tribes’ people who farmed the land there, in favour of ethnic and economic homogenisation. Van Biljon uses maps to show how the Khoi were kept out of what used to be their summer pastures, and what is now the City Bowl. The landscape itself and Table Mountain were used as part of the city’s fortifications.

“This drawing shows the first hundred years of Dutch agriculture expansion and the Cape colony, with the spectre of the Khoi’s movement routes over that.”

After the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, new ways of creating a working underclass were created in the very architecture of the city. Then, in the early twentieth century, the bubonic plague broke out and the black and coloured population in District 6 were rounded up and moved out to the first segregated township – “setting the tone,” according to Van Biljon, “for the rest of the twentieth century’s urban development in Cape Town”.